The Pelagian Captivity Of Evangelicalism—What The Reformers Would Think Of Modern Evangelicalism

1363083_chain_of_time_5Confession time!  I’ve had more and more of a difficult time applying the label of ‘Evangelical’ to myself as of late. (Note: When I use the word ‘Evangelicalism’ I use it to describe the current national-cultural form of American Christianity.)  Even though the Lutherans of the 1500’s embraced the label and could be considered some of the first Evangelicals, I have come to wonder if they would associate with Modern Evangelicalism if they were alive today? If alive today, could the Reformers even identify any remnants of the 16th century Reformation in Evangelicalism today? Mark Noll in his book, America’s God, states that if the Reformers were alive today they would find themselves further removed from modern day Evangelicalism than they were removed from the Catholic Church of the 1500’s. Take a moment and listen below to Michael Horton commenting on Mark Noll’s amazing assessment on Issues, Etc.:




J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, in their introduction to Martin Luther’s book, The Bondage of the Will, make a similar assessment and observation of Protestantism in general,

“With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation? Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognized by the pioneer Reformers. The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about salvation of lost mankind. In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimize and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? Are we innocent of the doctrinal indifferentism with which Luther charged Erasmus? Do we still believe that doctrine matters?”[1]

So an obvious question in response to these two assessments above would be, where did things drift off course? The Calvinist theologian R.C. Sproul makes the following assessment,

“In the nineteenth century, there was a preacher who became very popular in America, who wrote a book on theology, coming out of his own training in law, in which he made no bones about his Pelagianism. He rejected not only Augustinianism, but he also rejected semi-Pelagianism and stood clearly on the subject of unvarnished Pelagianism, saying in no uncertain terms, without any ambiguity, that there was no Fall and that there is no such thing as original sin. This man went on to attack viciously the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and in addition to that, to repudiate as clearly and as loudly as he could the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. This man’s basic thesis was, we don’t need the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because we have the capacity in and of ourselves to become righteous. His name: Charles Finney, one of America’s most revered evangelists.” [2]

Sproul goes on to state that Charles Finney, could be classified as the patron saint of 20th century Evangelicalism; a Hall of Famer for Evangelical Christianity in America.[3]

While the precise derailment of the Reformation’s theology within Modern Evangelicalism could be debated, one thing is for sure and that is American Evangelicalism as a whole has taken on the theological flavor of Pelagianism. Simply put, this Pelagian theology teaches that: man is basically good, man can move toward God by his own power without the grace of the Holy Spirit, man can convert himself to God, man can believe the Gospel whole-heartedly, man can obey God’s Law thus meriting forgiveness of sins and eternal life.[4] Quite obviously Charles Finney’s theology of Pelagianism, conditioned faith, elevated the spiritual condition of mankind, downplayed sin, undercut the Holy Spirit and robbed the narrative from God in placing mankind in the starring role. Evangelicalism is now captive to a man-centered Gospel, which is no Gospel at all and plagued by sermons of good advice meant to motivate and inspire the potential ‘self’ (i.e., the old Adam).

In response to this captivity, there has been some encouraging movement in the North American Church. Several years back The Cambridge Declaration was released addressing the erosion of the 16th century Reformation Solas in today’s Evangelical Churches. The popular radio program The White Horse Inn has taken on a five year project in drafting 95 Theses for this modern generation. There has even been the joining of pastors in loosely knit organizations such as The Gospel Coalition. This is an organization that is deeply concerned about the Gospel and also the condition of Evangelicalism today.



A Baptist friend once told me that during the days of Charles Spurgeon, that the Gospel became the ‘in thing’ among the Christians of the day. He said that it became the ‘in thing’ not because of a special marketing campaign but because it had been absent from the church for so long. While the current condition of Modern Evangelicalism today is something to be drastically concerned about, I am personally cautiously optimistic that there is a rekindling of the Gospel in Evangelicalism.  Take for instance Tullian Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham, who hosts a yearly convention in Florida called, Liberate. He stated in last year’s conference invitation,

” I’m ecstatic about the resurgence of interest in the gospel that’s taking place inside the Evangelical church today. The idea that once God saves us his plan isn’t to steer us beyond the gospel, but to move us more deeply into the gospel, is gaining traction in churches of all stripes and denominations. And that’s a great thing. But as far as we’ve come, I’m convinced that God is summoning us to go deeper, to go “higher up and further back”[5]

My hope and prayer for Modern Evangelicalism is that the Gospel would be rediscovered, that the Gospel would once again become the ‘in thing’ and that the church would be liberated from the captivity of Pelagianism. For this we pray… Amen.


[1] J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, The Bondage of the Will [Revell, 1957], 59-60.

[2] R.C. Sproul, The Pelagian Captivity of the Church (Accessed March 2, 2013)

[3]  Ibid.

[4] Tim Ysteboe, We Believe: Commentary on the Statement of Faith  [Faith and Fellowship, 2010], 55-56

[5] Tullian Tchividjian, Liberate Conference Inviation (Accessed March 2, 2013)


About Pastor Matt Richard

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church of Gwinner, ND. He was previously a Senior Pastor in Sidney, Montana, an Associate Pastor of Spiritual Care and Youth Ministries in Williston, North Dakota, and an Associate Pastor of Children and Youth in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He received his undergraduate degree from Minot State University, ND and his M.Div. from Lutheran Brethren Seminary, MN. His doctor of ministry thesis, from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, was on exploring the journey of American Evangelicals into Confessional Lutheran thought. Pastor Richard is married to Serenity and they have two children. He enjoys fishing, pheasant hunting, watching movies, blogging, golfing, spending time with his family and a good book with a warm latte! To check out more articles by Pastor Matt you can visit his personal blog at:


The Pelagian Captivity Of Evangelicalism—What The Reformers Would Think Of Modern Evangelicalism — 15 Comments

  1. Tullian has taken some beef from fellow Calvinist/Reformed pastors for his stance as well. He’s been (more by implication than outright accusation) accused of flirting with Antinomianism (unfairly I might add) and it’s been said that he sounds a lot like a Lutheran with his emphasis on the law/gospel division. His book Jesus plus Nothing equals Everything is a very good read, and he cites Walther in it.

  2. @J. Dean #1
    Yes, Tchividjian has really picked up on the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel. This distinction is becoming more popular with other more Calvinist thinkers such as Paul Zahl. I hope this idea spreads far outside our circles, because it isn’t absolutely necessary for one to be Lutheran in order to benefit greatly from it. The Reformed folk have a strong celebrity platform from which to disseminate this doctrine, should they be interested. Also, many Presbyterian/Reformed groups are beginning to recover a more sacramental understanding of Christian Worship. Even Baptists among the Acts29 or Gospel Coalition groups are recovering things like weekly communion. These may be good indications of a modern reformation.

  3. I would not get all too excited about what is going on with the Gospel Coalition. Yes, it is nice to see these evangelicals returning to the core of their faith, and it is heart-warming to see so much ecumenical cooperation between the Presbyterians and Baptists who make up this informal John Calvin Club.

    But before we celebrate, we should give a more critical eye to whom they allow on their council:

    Also, we have to be wary that when they say “Gospel,” they mean something drastically different than we do. At their best, they refer to the Gospel as given in the Westminster Standards or Three Forms of Unity, but there is much decision theology, pietism, and pragmatism in their highly neo-puritan ranks. There is a lot of bad doctrine being spread by this group in the name of the Gospel, and they have an annoying tendency to take peripheral doctrines and make them primary concerns: Young Earth Creationism, Complementarianism, “missional-ism” etc… to the point that they completely displace Christo-centricity. They are also quite full of outspoken culture warriors who often make morality the main thrust of their public proclamation, to the point of ignoring grace. Unless they learn the law/gospel distinction, the “gospel” they are “coalitioning” for is not as big an improvement over pop-American Evangelicalism as the Reformed community ought to be able to offer.

    I, for one, do not think that the Gospel needs to be the “in” thing with Christianity because I do not think that “cool” is capable of building the Kingdom of God. All that “cool” can possibly do is load up the Gospel with other baggage, mostly cultural, but often heterodoxical. Pastoral vocation gets distorted into a pursuit of celebrity. The Gospel gets wielded as a platform of personal charisma. Christ came for the un-cool, and certainly not with the intention of helping them to become cool.

    They mighty take semi-pelagianism away from you with one hand, but with the other they subtly reintroduce it under the guise of the third use of the law, complimented with numerous shibboleths, hijinks, trendy marketing, and high-jargon spirituality. There’s a lot of good folks in TGC (the PCA guys in particular), but I’m not exactly rejoicing over their witness just yet.

  4. @Miguel #3

    And they refuse to acknowledge the sex abuse and coverup going on in the SBC and SGM, or the cult of personality around Mark Driscoll in Acts 29 network.

  5. @Nicholas #4
    The SGM lawsuit is what I was referencing with the internet monk link. Mark Driscoll is, I believe, no longer a member of TGC, and he has withdrawn from Acts29 leadership as well.

  6. @Miguel #5

    Yes, but I haven’t found anything critical of Driscoll at TGC, and if he hadn’t voluntarily withdrawn, he would still be a member of TGC and a leader at Acts 29.

    Anyway, I pray that the LCMS will never respond to child abuse or sex abuse the same way the Roman Catholic Church, the SBC, and SGM all have.

    All, for more information on what I am talking about, go here:

  7. Rev. Richard, I empathize with your dilemma.

    This issue came up recently with my sons. The full name of our church was read during the introduction of new members, and my 16yr old was shocked to discover that we are “Evangelical” (ie. Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church). I took them back to the protoevangelion of Genesis 3, through Pelagianism, Rome and the German Reformers, the Saxons and Finney to show them the distinction between the historic evangel and today’s America’s Evangelicalism.

    I also echo Miguel’s concerns. While I have greatly appreciated WHI (a deluge of confessionalism after more than a decade non-self imposed drought), and the seeming recovery of Christianity (ie. the Gospel) within the larger American church is encouraging, remember why the Germans were called “evangelical” and not “Lutheran.” The Lutheran Confessions were not and remain not sectarian; They simply reflect what the Church/the Gospel/Christianity is. Instead of jumping on bandwagons that seem to be returning to center, we need to look to our roots–roots that are fretted throughout the “Center”–and cling to them.

    That’s what the “Lutheran” Reformers did, that’s what the Saxons did, that is what I am trying to teach my children to do. The Lutheran Confessions were formed in a life or death crucible which distilled what was and what was not the Gospel, faith, the Church, etc. It is telling that those who are now “rediscovering” the core and truth of the Christian faith are being accused of being “Lutheran.” That is because we are (historically, doctrinally) already there. And we have remained (more or less faithfully) there for the past 500+ years. For the sake of my children, and for the sake of our “Evangelical” brothers, let us focus on remaining there and defend and return to those confessions which recovered the evangel 500 years ago.

    soli Deo gloria,

  8. I agree with Miguel wholeheartedly. Until Evangelicals embrace the Sacraments, specifically Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, they preach another Gospel. What else could you be declaring if you deny the Sacraments (and in that sense, the Word too)?

  9. Daniel Broaddus :I agree with Miguel wholeheartedly. Until Evangelicals embrace the Sacraments, specifically Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, they preach another Gospel. What else could you be declaring if you deny the Sacraments (and in that sense, the Word too)?

    I don’t disagree with that. But playing “evangelical’s advocate,” they’d look at your statement and say “See!?! You’re adding something to the gospel! You don’t believe in the solas because you’re adding works (the sacraments) as necessary for salvation!”

    This is the impasse which must be crossed with evangelicals if the matter is to be properly explained.

  10. Miguel :@J. Dean #9 The irony of that is that they’d acuse the author of the Solas to be in disagreement with the Solas.

    I agree, but it’s like I said on another area here, when an evangelical hears a Lutheran say “I was baptized” they perceive it to be “I’m saved by something other than (or in addition to) the work of Christ on the cross.” The connection isn’t always made between baptism and Christ, either because the Lutheran doesn’t explain it well, or because the evangelical doesn’t hear it well (or maybe both).

  11. I find it interesting that the vast majority of Baptists have long since forsaken their Calvinistic roots (and thus, Monergism), and have embraced Synergism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Decision Theology. I wonder if their view of the Sacraments (that being no sacraments at all) has anything to do with this.

    The heretic Pelagius rejected the necessity of infant Baptism, whereas St. Augustine rigorously defended it. So Pelagius may have been history’s first Baptist. (Many Baptists like to point to Tertullian, but Tertullian affirmed baptismal regeneration).

  12. Pelagius didn’t really teach that grace is not necessary. He taught that infants are not damned by original sin to the point of having to be baptized or going to hell when they die. In other words, he was a BAPTIST. He was strawmanned as being against grace, but that’s only because in the mind of the ROMAN CATHOLICS like Augustine “grace” meant “infant baptism!” Let’s not be stupid and believe the non-sense the Calvinists spout. Pelagius was condemned by Roman Catholics for being a Baptist and that’s all there is to it.

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